TDB Vol. 3 No. 4: A Vast Network of State Surveillance Permeated Society During Taiwan’s Authoritarian Era

TDB Vol. 3 No. 4: A Vast Network of State Surveillance Permeated Society During Taiwan’s Authoritarian Era

As the archives are opened, we are learning more about the extent of the party-state’s intelligence-gathering inside people’s homes and on university campuses. Recently released files and video documentaries help tell that story of Taiwan’s dark past. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

The Transitional Justice Commission, officially established in May 2018, weathered a political crisis that nearly blew it out only three months into its operations and undermined public confidence in its ability to meet its objectives. But recently, it has received positive attention for its success in piecing together the full picture of the surveillance efforts targeting the Taiwanese during the authoritarian era.

 

‘A diary kept by others’

Reading through stacks of files that recorded their lives more than three decades ago, the activists-turned-scholars/lawyers/historians were separately being monitored once again through the lens of a video camera, this time as part of a short documentary released by the Commission at the end of May.

 

The files were kept by the intelligence agencies during 1980s to keep close tabs on those who the regime regarded as possible “disruptors” on university campuses. Among other things, they found letters sent by a mother to a son doing his mandatory military service, the floor plans of the apartment where he once lived, and details of their entertainments that they had almost forgotten.

 

“We often found that our activities were being preemptively targeted,” Lin Kuo-min, professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, said of his campus life when he was a student activist. Historian Yang Pi-chuan, jailed in the 1970s for his political views and who worked as a club instructor of Taiwanese history at NTU after his release from prison, found photos of his apartment and rooms in his files.

 

The informers appeared in the files under code names, but using various details, Lin and Yang were able to identify them. They could be the nanny who once babysat your child, or one whom you’ve considered a good friend to this day.

 

“I know all the people in the files from front to back,” said Yang. “Of course I’m much saddened by the fact that they…” he did not finish the sentence.

 

According to the files collected by the Commission, more than 5,000 informers were co-opted or installed on university campuses around the country by 1983.

 

A screenshot from the short video documentary released by the Transitional Justice Commission

 

The Commission said it will invite more of those who were targeted by government surveillance, and if possible, informers, to read the archives. There has been, and surely there will be a more heated, debate on whether these files should be made fully open to the public. Although some informers appeared under code names, there were real names, too. The approach to make transparent these political surveillance files varies across post-authoritarian countries, with some making them fully open to the public while others have chosen to limit access to those who were directly involved only.

 

“No one enjoys being a snitch. They were either lured or threatened,” Yang said. According to the Commission, the techniques used to recruit informers included the agents heaping debts on a person by taking him/her to a gambling den, where underhanded measures ensured the target would accumulate substantial debt.

 

On June 1 the Commission released another 18-minute film written by Hung Tzu-ying, the screenwriter of On Children, and directed by award-winning director Lo Ging-zim (who was also behind the ghost month commercial that sparked discussion with its underlying historical innuendos). The short film depicts a dying man who asks his son to return copies of a “diary” he had written, under the military instructor’s cajoling and intimidation, to his college friend.

 

Based on the archives collected by the Commission, the film shows not only the informer’s betrayal but also his conundrum. It also points to the fact that the information could be partly fabricated for the sake of reporting on a targeted individual.

 

“The surveillance records could be mottled with agents or informants’ misinformation generated with biases and deliberate exaggerations, as other countries’ transitional justice experiences have shown. Judgments therefore cannot be made based on surveillance files alone,” the Commission said.

 

Education-intelligence-party surveillance complex

By the 1980s, surveillance activities against students and schools had been a fact of life for quite a while already. As early as the 1950s, the Kuomintang (KMT) had set up “anti-communist struggle research teams” at universities to execute political investigative tasks. In the 1970s, the KMT transferred the work to the intelligence agencies, but continued to oversee the coordination between the agencies and the Ministry of Education (MOE).

 

“Chun Feng Briefing” (春風會報; Chun Feng, literally “spring wind,” can be used to describe the “positive influence” of a teacher) was a national campus security briefing against “disturbing” elements first set up in response to a student movement driven by the cause of “protecting the Diaoyutai Islands” in the 1970s. The briefing mechanism consisted of party units, government agencies (MOE, Investigation Bureau, and National Police Agency), as well as military units, taking charge of information-gathering and decision making pertaining to campus security.

 

When Huang Erh-hsuan, a founding member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and former associate professor of political science at Soochow University, died in February, the university’s student body and political science department filed a petition to the Commission, in the hopes of finding the truth behind the sudden sacking of Huang by the university in 1983. According to the Commission’s investigation, Huang’s removal from his position was listed as a major achievement of the campus surveillance system overseen by the regime.

 

The KMT ramped up its effort in 1983 by setting up a “Campus Stabilization Work Briefing” that convened bi-weekly so that the regime could respond to the “abnormal” incidents and quickly crack down on dissent.

 

NTU was a particular thorn in the regime’s side, according to the files collected and investigated by the Commission. Student activities at NTU were suspected to be linked to the tangwai. It was against this backdrop that the three men who are featured in the video, among hundreds, were placed under surveillance.

 

“NTU is the country’s best university. If the free academic atmosphere continues to spread, the survival of the Republic of China could be threatened,” Arthur Shay, the activist-turned-lawyer featured in the video, read from a file by the Investigation Bureau.

 

Election machine

The survival of the Republic of China apparently also hinged on local elections that were permitted with reluctance during the authoritarian period.

 

“Chin-tang briefings” (金湯會報) were regularly held by the Investigation Bureau during the Martial Law era for “security and counter-espionage.” Participants included representatives from the security agencies such as the Taiwan Garrison Command, the Ministry of National Defense, military police, police departments, and the 2nd section of personnel offices (人二室; in charge of surveillance in public offices and schools) from the related administrative units. The presence of the KMT’s local chapters was often recorded, and the party’s hierarchical status was demonstrated by the fact that its representatives were always listed in front of those from other agencies.

 

In meeting minutes in 1981, it was revealed that the party was trying to collect journalists’ handwritings. In another, attention was drawn to the fact that school educators were corresponding more frequently with their families in “bandit-occupied-areas” (i.e., the People’s Republic of China) by taking the letters overseas to be mailed.

 

With local elections approaching, the briefings also turned into campaign planning. There were no clear lines separating government and party, with the former urging others to ramp up support for KMT candidates, collecting information about rivals and identifying who was assisting the tangwai candidates so they could be “handled” by the security agencies.

 

Miaoli Chin-tang briefing (left) on the attempt to collect journalists’ handwriting; Taichung Chin-tang briefing (right) on collecting tangwai candidates’ information (photo credit: Transitional Justice Commission)

 

‘In fear’

Much as the Chinese Communist Party intensifies its persecution and silencing of dissidents on the eve of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the KMT regime, the Commission revealed, would tighten its surveillance on former political prisoners, dissidents and families as the anniversary of the February 28 Incident approached.

 

In a disclosed file from 1970, for example, special measures were planned by the Garrison Command, MND Political Warfare Bureau, the Military Police Headquarters, the Investigation Bureau, the Taiwan Provincial Police Agency and the KMT Central Committee Sixth Taskforce, to prevent “overseas traitors” from using families of 228 victims to “initiate illegal activities.” Agents were asked to more closely watch families of the victims, political prisoners who had served out their terms, and anyone who was suspected of being a possible “rioter.”

 

A Hualien Chin-tang briefing in 1971 documented how a name list of 228 victims and their families was requested for surveillance, while intelligence agencies were also ordered to monitor how society was reacting to the incident.

 

“This regime was in fear that it might get overthrown,” Yang said in the video. Out of fear, they in turn sowed fear in the people, and that was “the most destructive aspect of the [authoritarian] system.”

TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

There has been much discussion about the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice since it was passed in early December. The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation has come up with a Q&A to respond to the myths and controversies concerning the newly passed law and to help put transitional justice in its proper Taiwanese context.

 

1. Why does the transitional justice concerned in the Act only target the Kuomintang (KMT)? This is none other than political vendetta!

Transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their violations of the basic rights of the people and their abuse of state institutions and power. The KMT was the sole ruling party during the Martial Law period and where decision-making and discussion of many policies took place. It is difficult to undertake the project of Taiwan’s transitional justice and rectify the wrongs committed during the Martial Law period without making the party the target.

Post-democratization governments certainly are not immune to taking illegitimate actions that are against the principles of justice, but people living in a democratic society are more aptly equipped with rights guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by mechanisms such as separation of power and checks and balances. When their rights are violated, they have access to both institutional and non-institutional ways to demand a response from the government (appeal, court, petition or social protest).

What “transitional justice” deals with is the political persecution committed before democratization.

2. Taiwan’s transitional justice is purely a political scheme against waishengren and to de-Sinicize Taiwan?

In fact, according to statistical information derived from the number of people receiving state compensation, the percentage of waishengren political victims in the White Terror cases was actually a lot greater than the percentage of ethnic groups in Taiwan’s total population. The case of Shandong exiled students is an example that involved a large number of waishengren. Clearing up the history helps solve certain myths surrounding the ethnic divisions and antagonism. Due to its idiosyncratic history, Taiwan’s democratic transformation was intertwined with a process of change in people’s national identity; the two thereby have often been conflated but should actually be looked into with extra caution.

The core of transitional justice, however, is about how a society faces its history, about making those denying historical traumas and mistakes understand that it would come at a cost. Transitional justice is a task with concrete goals to achieve.

3. Chiang Kai-shek had made contributions to the country as well. Why can’t his contributions be displayed alongside his misdeeds? If not for him, Taiwan would have been taken over by the People’s Republic of China long ago and very likely be overwhelmed by the storm of the Cultural Revolution.

As said in the answer to the first question, transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their past violations, not to write biographies for historical figures. Those political parties and individuals who harbor special feelings for Chiang Kai-shek can continue their support for him.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric of “safeguarding Taiwan (against Chinese aggression)” cannot explain why Chiang perpetuated Martial Law rule even after his control over Taiwan (and offshore islands) was consolidated in the mid-1950s (after the Korean War) and why he targeted the communists, the tangwai/dangwai people and overseas Taiwanese independence activists as “three-in-one enemy” starting in the 1970s. “Protecting the island from falling under communist control” was a propaganda slogan for the ruler to rationalize his use of political repression and carrying out of comprehensive social surveillance during the Martial Law period.

4. The government has been compensating political victims since the 1990s. What else is to be done 30 years after Martial Law was lifted?

Bound by the National Security Act and Constitutional Interpretation No. 272, before the passage of the Act on Transitional Justice, the political victims, despite receiving compensation, were not cleared of their convictions and criminal records, seized properties were not returned, and the KMT archives during the years when the country was ruled by the party-state have not been made public. Even now, we still do not know exactly how many political victims there were during the White Terror. Why were they persecuted? Who should be held accountable? How extensive was the persecuting system? What, if any, have the persecutors done to redeem themselves? What was wrong with Martial Law and the constitutional institutions? The state has to face its own past deeds. Holding the repressive system accountable is much more than simply pointing fingers at Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo; a lot more needs to be done.

▶︎ See also: TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

Discovered in the 1990s, the Liuzhangli graveyard in Taipei was the burial ground for hundreds of White Terror victims. The cemetery was designated a municipal cultural landmark in 2015 (Photo: TATR).

5. The amendments to the Labor Standards Act have been stalled and same-sex marriage legalization (seemingly) mothballed; is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party pushing for transitional justice just to divert public attention?

What we need to do is to work together for the realization of social justice of various kinds rather than elbowing each other out. The passage of the Act on Transitional Justice does not mean that transitional justice has been achieved. The Transitional Justice Promotion Committee has to be overseen and kept from descending into formalism. We need to take this historical opportunity and build a bridge between the past and the future in our era.

6. Granted, the task of transitional justice should be done, but don’t we need to have a sense of proportion by first working hard on improving the economy?

Most of the living political victims are aged. This is probably the only time period in which we live alongside these people. When else but now are we to rectify the past wrongs for them and grant them their historical status? There are things that cannot be bought with money: lost youth, freedom and lives. They could have had a different life, if only Taiwanese society had been free from the decades-long suppression and suffocation. It’s hard to weigh the possibilities they had once owned for their worth, let alone against money.

7. Those political victims were not all innocent. Some of them were underground Chinese Communist Party members who were supposed to be executed.

No one would object to redressing the wrongful charges against the innocent, but the greatest challenge of transitional justice precisely lies in questioning the legitimacy and legality of the laws that the “criminals” had broken during the Martial Law era. How did the state violate the people’s basic rights and deprive the people of their rights under the pretext of maintaining social stability and national security via court-martial and laws? How do we draw the boundary between national security and protection of personal rights? This is a question in need of serious debate even in a democratic society. We can choose to forget and pretend nothing of the sort happened, or we can choose to face the history. Those interested in the debate can find a related extensive discussion on the website of the third constitutional court simulation (in Chinese) that was held in November, 2016.

8. Why are Indigenous peoples and “comfort women” not included in the Act?

Those who support the redressing of historical wrongs are supposed to also be in support of the restoring of justice for Indigenous people and for “comfort women.” Taking other countries’ cases as examples, these two groups deserve separate legislative bills for delicate and thorough handling of their demands, rather than being squeezed with other groups into the same piece of cloth.

The persecution that Indigenous people have been subjected to span different regimes, which requires a more comprehensive examination and solution that goes to the root of the problems stemming from political institutions and existing laws. If not, the same kind of persecution would only reappear in different forms. The issue of “comfort women,” on the other hand, requires the government to negotiate with the Japanese government and demand compensation and an apology.

It is hard to imagine these different forms of violence that require different routes for restoring justice could be dealt with by the same set of rules. Only through different legal and institutional frameworks can these issues be allowed more room for detailed and practical solutions to these complicated problems.

9. The constitutionality of the Act on Transitional Justice is in question?

Whether a law is unconstitutional is up to the grand justices to decide. Insofar as it has not been ruled unconstitutional, a law passed by the legislature is nevertheless effective.

Questions have been raised as to whether the jurisdiction assigned to the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee oversteps the jurisdiction of the judiciary, such as Article 14 of the Act granting the Committee the right to investigate, and Article 15 and Article 16 allowing the Committee to seal documents and materials regarded as evidence and to require those under investigation to speak the truth. According to Constitutional Interpretation No. 613 concerning the operation of an independent agency, the constitutionality of the operation of an independent agency will be upheld “if important matters are determined by means of hearings, if the performance of the execution of its mission is made transparent and public for the purpose of public supervision,” and with the existing “authority of the Legislative Yuan to supervise the operation of the independent agency through legislation and budget review.” Article 19 prohibits damaging of political archives on pain of imprisonment; however, the one who initiates the investigation should still be the prosecutors, as how the offenses of destruction, abandonment, and damage of property are governed in the Criminal Code.

In general, the Committee will be operating in the same way as other independent agencies (e.g. the National Communications Commission and the Fair Trade Commission), exercising its jurisdiction independently, unaffected by the change of premier and having the power of administrative enforcement (one could refer to the Administrative Execution Act for an understanding of how the power is governed). However, the Committee should be as prudent and transparent as possible when exercising these powers, with the Committee making critical decisions by consensus.

10. What is transitional justice anyway? What should be done to achieve it?

Transitional justice” used to be a professional term developed by international academia to refer to how a society that has achieved democratic transition faces and deals with mass human rights violations committed in the past by the state. It has therefore also been termed as “dealing with past wrongs.” The main objective of transitional justice is “Never Again” and to make up for the past sufferings of our fellow countrymen and -women. The core objectives of transitional justice are: seeking the truth, compensating the victims, restoring justice, attaining social reconciliation and preventing the return of state violence.

How is transitional justice done then? The more commonly seen mechanisms include (1) trials and vetting (holding the persecuting system and persecutors accountable); (2) setting up a Truth Committee and sorting and making public the related archives (the state needs to recognize what mistakes it has done); (3) compensating the victims and their families and restoring their reputation; (4) rebuilding the memory (removing/remaking symbols of authoritarianism and cautioning future generations against the return of authoritarianism through museums, memorials and textbooks). Every country has its own distinct way of carrying out transitional justice under different historical/political contexts; there is no “correct way.”

This piece originally appeared in Chinese. Translation by Alison Hsiao

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